Canadian Healthcare

Today’s coronavirus news: Toronto Public Health reports first COVID-19 variant case in homeless shelter; Ontario reporting 1,300 new cases of COVID-19 and 19 more deaths due to the virus


The latest coronavirus news from Canada and around the world Saturday. This file will be updated throughout the day. Web links to longer stories if available.

12:45 p.m.: Toronto Public Health says a case of a COVID-19 variant has surfaced in a city homeless shelter.

Officials provided few details about the case, which was identified at a city-funded shelter run by the Salvation Army.

They say there are currently eight active cases at the facility, but say only one case involving a variant has been identified so far.

They did not specify whether a shelter user or staff member tested positive for the variant.

The health unit says Public Health Ontario is conducting tests to identify which variant has emerged.

It says site-wide testing for staff and clients is ongoing.

12:43 p.m.: Lebanon received its first batch of coronavirus vaccines Saturday ahead of a nationwide campaign to start vaccinations in the tiny Mediterranean country, which has seen a sharp rise in cases and fatalities in recent weeks.

The 28,500 Pfizer doses from Brussels arrived on a plane from Lebanon’s national carrier and were to be taken to the Health Ministry’s warehouse, state-run National News Agency reported. From there, the vaccines will be sent to other parts of the country.

The first vaccinations are scheduled to take place in limited numbers on Sunday at four medical centres in the capital Beirut before the process begins in more than a dozen centres on Monday, local media reported. Within two weeks, the Health Ministry says 57 vaccination centres are to be set up nationwide.

Lebanon has registered more than 334,000 cases of coronavirus and 3,915 deaths since the country’s first registered case in February last year.

Lebanon succeeded in containing the virus during the pandemic’s early months, but the numbers began to increase following a massive blast in the capital’s port in August, which caused widespread damage in the city. The number of cases and deaths hit record highs after an estimated 80,000 expats flowed to the country to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s with loved ones.

Lebanon imposed a nationwide lockdown including a curfew as of Jan. 11 to try limit the spread of the virus.

More Pfizer doses are scheduled to arrive over the coming weeks and at a later stage AstraZeneca shots will be brought in, according to Abdul-Rahman Bizri, head of the national committee on COVID-19 vaccines.

So far, some 450,000 people have registered to take the vaccines, said Health Minister Hamad Hassan upon the shots’ arrival Saturday. The figure is still a small percentage of the country of around six million, including a million Syrian refugees.

The World Bank said last month it approved $34 million to help pay for vaccines for Lebanon that will inoculate over 2 million people.

World Bank Regional Director Saroj Kumar Jha told reporters in a virtual news conference in late January that Lebanon will import 1.5 million doses from Pfizer vaccines for 750,000 people “and this we are financing in full.” The World Bank will also help in financing other vaccines.

Lebanon is passing through its worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history, leaving half of its population below the poverty line. The vaccines will be free of charge for the public.

The plan will begin by vaccinating workers in the medical sector and people age 75 and above, as well as others with chronic diseases.

The World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies signed an agreement on Saturday for independent monitoring of Lebanon’s coronavirus vaccination campaign.

12:10 p.m.: The federal government is diverting some of Nova Scotia’s COVID-19 vaccines to Canada’s North.

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, says the province learned earlier this week Ottawa would be reallocating its upcoming delivery of Moderna vaccines to the country’s northern territories.

The reallocation means Nova Scotia will receive 3,000 of the vaccines instead of the originally planned 5,900.

Nova Scotia is also expecting a reduction in its March shipment of vaccines, though Strang says officials are waiting for confirmation from the federal government.

The Moderna vaccine is being used to inoculate people within the province’s long term care facilities.

Strang says the diversion of resources will slow the rollout of its vaccination plan for the facilities, but long-term care residents and staff will continue to be immunized with first and second doses.

“While we know this is concerning to hear, we understand the federal government’s rationale,” Strang said. “It is to address the complexities and unique challenges in our northern neighbours. And to do that, they need the support and co-operation of all provinces.”

12:09 p.m.: Quebec is reporting 1,049 new COVID-19 cases today, as well as 33 new virus-related deaths.

The province says five of the most recent fatalities came in the past 24 hours, with 21 occurring between Feb. 6 and Feb. 11 and seven taking place before Feb. 6.

The number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 decreased by 37 since the last daily report and currently stands at 812, with 130 patients in intensive care.

The province also says it administered 8,675 doses of vaccine on Friday, for a total of 290,953.

The total number of COVID-19 deaths in the province is 10,201, with five deaths being withdrawn after an investigation showed they were not caused by the virus.

A total of 275,880 people have contracted the virus in Quebec since the onset of the pandemic.

12:08 p.m.: Brazilian state governors are pursuing their own vaccine supply plans, with some expressing concern that President Jair Bolsonaro’s government won’t deliver the shots required to avoid interrupting immunization efforts.

Governors are under pressure from mayors, some of whose vaccine stocks have already been depleted, including three cities in the metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro. Northeastern Bahia state’s capital Salvador suspended vaccination on Thursday because supplies are dwindling. Brazil’s two biggest cities, Rio and Sao Paulo, are expected to be without shots in a matter of days.

The governor who has pushed hardest to shore up his state’s own vaccine supply during the pandemic is Sao Paulo’s João Doria, a former Bolsonaro ally turned adversary. The president repeatedly criticized Doria’s deal to purchase 100 million CoronaVac shots from Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac and said the federal government wouldn’t buy them.

Bolsonaro reversed course in January, facing delay in the delivery of the only vaccine his administration purchased and watching as other nations began immunizing their citizens while Brazil’s 210 million people were on hold.

“If it weren’t for this (CoronaVac) shot, Brazil today would be a country without vaccines,” Doria told The Associated Press in an interview. He added that he is negotiating for 20 million more doses and, if the federal government doesn’t buy them, he could sell them to other governors. “It is not for a state government to secure vaccines, but here we are.”

Bolsonaro’s administration has a deal for 100 million AstraZeneca doses, but only 2 million of them have arrived, with more expected only in March, according to Fiocruz, the Rio-based laboratory that will produce the shots in Brazil.

Brazil’s government last month contracted for 46 million CoronaVac shots from Sao Paulo, of which nearly 10 million have so far been delivered, and is under pressure to sign another deal for 54 million more.

12:07 p.m.: British government scientists are increasingly finding the coronavirus variant first detected in Britain to be deadlier than the original virus, a trend that highlights the risks of this new phase of the pandemic.

The scientists said last month that there was a “realistic possibility” that the variant was more lethal. Now, they say in a new document that it is “likely” that the variant is connected to an increased risk of hospitalization and death.

The updated findings are based on roughly twice as many studies as their earlier assessment and include more deaths from cases of COVID-19 caused by the new variant, known as B.1.1.7.

The variant is known to be in 82 countries. American scientists have said that it could be the dominant version of the virus in the United States by March.

Most COVID-19 cases, even those caused by the new variant, are not fatal. And the government scientists were relying on studies that examined a small proportion of overall deaths, making it difficult to pinpoint how much increased risk may be associated with the variant.

But the strongest studies they relied on estimated that the variant could be 30 per cent to 70 per cent more lethal than the original virus.

The variant is thought to be 30 per cent to 50 per cent more transmissible than the original virus, though some scientists now believe it is even more contagious than that. It now accounts for more than 90 per cent of cases in many parts of Britain.

The government scientists cited a study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In January, that study examined the deaths of 2,583 people, 384 of whom were believed to have had cases of COVID-19 caused by the new variant. The research estimated that people infected with the new variant had a 35 per cent higher risk of dying.

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An updated study by the same group relied on 3,382 deaths, 1,722 of which were believed to be from the new variant. That study suggested that the variant could be connected with a 71 per cent higher risk of dying.

11:12 a.m.: Ontario is reporting 1,300 new cases of COVID-19 today and 19 more deaths linked to the virus.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says there are 433 new cases in Toronto, 253 in Peel Region, and 116 in York Region.

Today’s case count represents a slight increase from tallies that have hovered closer to the 1,000 mark in recent days.

Elliott says almost 58,800 tests were completed since the last daily update.

A total of 456,947 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the province.

Data shows 786 people are currently in hospital with COVID-19, with 287 of those patients in intensive care and 203 on ventilators.

The figures come a day after Ontario announced stay-at-home orders would be lifting for 27 public health units early next week as they transition back to the province’s colour-coded pandemic response framework.

Read Ann Marie Elpa’s full report

8:47 a.m.: Public health officials have identified a probable case of a COVID-19 variant in a student at a Kitchener, Ont., school.

Waterloo Region’s school board says the case has not been declared as an outbreak because it’s in the dismissed cohort.

The board says the student at W.T. Townshend Public School tested positive for the virus and is a close contact of someone positive for a variant of concern.

It did not specify which COVID-19 variant strain the person tested positive for.

It says the student’s cohort has been dismissed and no other cohorts are affected at the time.

The public health unit says this is not unexpected due to variant cases spreading in Ontario.

7:56 a.m.: Mario Draghi, the man credited with largely saving the euro currency, on Saturday formally took the helm as Italy’s premier, after crafting a government that balances economic experts and other technocrats with career politicians from across the spectrum to guide the pandemic-devastated nation toward recovery.

Ending weeks of political crisis, Draghi and his Cabinet ministers took their oaths of office in a ceremony at the Quirinal presidential palace in front of President Sergio Mattarella. It was Mattarella who tasked Draghi, a former chief of the European Central Bank as well as of Italy’s central bank, with trying to form a government up to managing the COVID-19 health, economic and social crises.

Perhaps in a sign of Draghi’s intent to get quickly to work in healing Italy, the swearing-in ceremony began three minutes early. In deference to coronavirus precautions, all participants in the ceremony were masked, and a palace aide provided each minister with a fresh pen to sign their oath.

After days of back-and-forth with political leaders, Draghi on Friday evening announced a government deftly balancing economic experts and other technocrats with politicians from parties ranging from left to right. Given how the pandemic lockdowns have pummeled Italy’s already-stagnant economy, Draghi chose for the crucial post of economy minister a non-political appointee, Daniele Franco, who has served both in Italian central bank posts and as the state’s accountant.

Eager to have some role in deciding how Italy will spend some 209 billion euros (about $250 billion), politicians from parties that have spent years demonizing each other set aside differences, at least for now, and agreed to join a Draghi government.

That political backing will be crucial in Parliament, where Draghi next week must put his government to the test of mandatory confidence votes.

7:55 a.m.: For more than two months, a 73-year-old cancer patient fought COVID-19 at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

His doctors did genomic sequencing on blood and respiratory samples collected as he got better and then, suddenly, worse. They chronicled the emergence of a slew of coronavirus mutations — including an ominous one that is part of strains from the United Kingdom and South Africa now sweeping around the globe, threatening the effectiveness of new vaccines.

New cases in Montgomery County and at Penn show the coronavirus variant is spreading across the Philly region

The thing is, the UPMC patient died months before those countries identified the variants and sounded alarms in December.

Similar reports of patients who succumbed or barely survived worrisome new coronavirus strains – months before scientists were on the lookout for those particular strains – have been published by researchers in Boston, London, and the National Institutes of Health.

These patients all had severely weakened immune systems, long-running COVID-19 infections, and treatments intended to boost their immune response. For the virus, they were the perfect hosts for speeding up natural evolution and accumulating “escape” mutations – DNA changes that would give the microbe a survival advantage and enable it to outcompete other variants if it started spreading in the community.

What this suggests, researchers say, is that mutations that make the virus more transmissible and more intractable are arising repeatedly, spontaneously, independently — and largely undetected — around the world. Scientists call it “convergent evolution.”

“It’s pretty remarkable that many of the mutations that characterize the U.K. and South African variants actually first emerged in the spring and summer of 2020, months before news reports of these new variants began to circulate,” said Ghady Haidar, a transplant infectious diseases physician at UPMC and senior author of a case report on the 73-year-old cancer patient. “This is exactly what happened with our patient: we discovered all these mutations and were stunned at how quickly the virus evolved, but it wasn’t until the winter of 2020 that we realized that these are the same mutations that the UK is reporting.”

This phenomenon has implications for treating immunocompromised patients, for new waves of the pandemic, and most of all, for vaccinating our way out of it.

Saturday 7:52 a.m.: Mexico is reducing its COVID-19 alert level in about half of the country’s states amid a drop in infections and hospitalizations in many places, including the capital.

Mexico City announced that starting next week gyms, indoor swimming pools and churches will be allowed to open and restaurants will be able to operate outdoors until 10 p.m. Mexico’s capital let shopping malls partially reopen this week.

“The epidemic continues but it is, at least at the moment, heading downward,” said the federal government’s spokesperson on the pandemic, Hugo López-Gatell. “Vaccination is going forward; let’s continue calmly and optimistically but with prudence and discipline.”

The new coronavirus figures, however, do not show so much reason for euphoria. Mexico has 1.9 million infections with at least 172,557 confirmed deaths, although authorities acknowledge the real number of deaths could be much higher.

The government is trying to speed up the vaccination program with the authorization of two new vaccines this week and the arrival of more batches. In total, fewer than 86,000 people have been fully vaccinated in a country with 126 million inhabitants.

Mexico uses a red, orange, yellow and green level coronavirus alert system. Of the 13 states that have been at the maximum level, only two are left in red —Guanajuato and Guerrero. The only state in green is Chiapas in the country’s south.

Read Friday’s coronavirus news





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